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New Zealand's new government plans to roll back cigarette ban as it funds tax cuts

New Zealand's new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, center, formed a coalition government with Winston Peters, left, the leader of the New Zealand First party, and David Seymour, leader of ACT New Zealand.
Marty Melville
AFP via Getty Images
New Zealand's new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, center, formed a coalition government with Winston Peters, left, the leader of the New Zealand First party, and David Seymour, leader of ACT New Zealand.

New Zealand has long been a leader in the battle against tobacco and its extensive health costs. But the latest step in the country's ambitious plan to sharply reduce smoking is now in jeopardy due to political necessity.

Prime Minister Chris Luxon was sworn in on Monday — and strict anti-smoking laws are set to become a casualty of the compromises required to form his new coalition government.

If successful, the rollback would undo what's been seen as a world model for tobacco policies.

The backstory

Last December, health experts praised New Zealand for adopting a "tobacco endgame policy" aiming to phase out cigarettes. The country's lawmakers approved legislation to:

  • Ban sales of tobacco products to anyone born after 2008;
  • Limit the amount of addictive nicotine in cigarettes;
  • Cut the number of tobacco retailers from 6,000 to 600.

New Zealand amended its tobacco laws as the government drove to fulfill its Smokefree 2025 policy, which calls for reducing the percentage of New Zealanders who smoke to just 5% by 2025.

The changes were seen as a potential blueprint for other nations to follow as they grapple with the health, social and economic effects of tobacco use.

"Governments are starting to see that it can't all be focused on the demand side," Chris Bostic, policy director for the advocacy group Action on Smoking and Health, told NPR last year. "It needs to be focused on the supply side. And, of course, it's the tobacco industry that is causing this. This is an industrially caused epidemic, and so we need to focus on that."

New Zealand's restrictions were projected to bring large economic gains in the long run, both by preventing health system costs and boosting earnings from people avoiding premature death and chronic disease.

The smoking ban was also seen, with some caveats, as a potential boost for the indigenous Māori population, whose smoking rate of around 20% is the highest of any demographic group. A recent study blamed smoking as a major driver behind the large life-expectancy gap between Māori and other New Zealanders. But critics also said the changes lacked enough support and consideration for Māori.

The new political reality

Luxon's National Party campaigned on the promise of tax cuts, funded in large part by a new tax revenue stream from allowing foreigners to buy residential properties. But as it reached deals to form a coalition, the party announced it would no longer seek to end New Zealand's ban on foreigners buying residences. That left a hole in its economic plans.

"Policy changes will help offset the loss of revenue from that change," Luxon said as his party announced the shift.

When incoming Finance Minister Nicola Willis was asked over the weekend for details about those other revenue sources, she mentioned tax and other revenue from tobacco sales. In an interview with TV's Newshub Nation, Willis said, "we have to remember that the changes to the smoke-free legislation had a significant impact on the government books, with about $1 billion there."

As those remarks made headlines, both Willis and Luxon portrayed the change of heart on tobacco as a policy decision rather than an economic tradeoff, citing potential regulatory problems. They also cited National's coalition partners: the populist New Zealand First (which was previously in a coalition with former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern), and the right-wing ACT.

Willis said New Zealand First and ACT were concerned that the tobacco changes "would have a couple of nasty side effects," such as fueling a black market of untaxed sales and sparking "ram raid" thefts at stores.

Luxon said enforcing the new age limit — which seeks to outlaw smoking for a generation now poised to come of age — would also be a challenge.

"The issue is the component parts of the program, how does it ultimately get enforced?" Luxon told public broadcaster RNZ. "A 36-year-old can smoke, but a 35-year-old can't smoke down the road? That doesn't sort of make a lot of sense."

Supporters of the anti-smoking laws, such as Health Coalition Aotearoa, disagree with the plan to repeal the legislation.

"This is major loss for public health, and a huge win for the tobacco industry — whose profits will be boosted at the expense of Kiwi lives," said HCA co-chair Boyd Swinburn, a professor at Auckland University School of Population Health.

The coalition agreement calls for repealing the anti-smoking amendments and regulations before March of 2024. New Zealand's Parliament is expected to convene next week.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.